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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Juárez Cruz, Institute for Economics & Peace

Corruption That Kills: How Corruption is Undermining Peace and Democracy in Mexico

By Talia Hagerty and Carlos Juárez Cruz

Mexico is about to face the biggest test to peace and democracy it has seen in decades – and endemic corruption is only making it harder.

Amidst the world’s most challenging series of elections since the end of the Cold War, Mexico is not exempt in 2018. For the first time in its history, the nation will elect over 3,400 public officials on the same day, including independent candidates and the first generation of mayors eligible to seek re-election. But a nationwide turnover in government comes in a dangerous context: 2017 marked the most violent year the country has seen in two decades. On top of the nearly 29,000 lives lost, rising levels of violence have destroyed trust throughout society and undermined the already-weak rule of law. What is enabling the vicious cycle of violence, mistrust, apathy and impunity? Decades of endemic corruption.

Corruption is no longer a concern for its own sake in Mexico. While corruption is not traditionally thought of as a peace and security issue, research from the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) shows that a low level of corruption is critical to peace. However, where corruption is high, the risk of violence is much more severe. In Mexico, where 91% of people report that corruption is either frequent or very frequent, IEP finds that high levels of corruption and low levels of trust are both driving insecurity and undermining one of the nation’s critical pathways for building peace: democracy.

The 2018 Mexico Peace Index (MPI) measured an 11% deterioration in peacefulness in 2017 – an unprecedented drop in a single year. Of the 32 states, 25 experienced rising violence, affecting the homes of over 100 million Mexicans. The homicide rate rose 25%, reaching 24 per 100,000 people, the eighth highest in Latin America and on par with post-conflict Colombia. Robbery, assault, sexual violence, and domestic violence all rose in 2017. Only the combined rate of organized crime related offenses – kidnapping, extortion and drug crimes – stayed stable. While organized criminal groups remain Mexico’s greatest security challenge, the MPI results indicate a broader systemic breakdown in peacefulness.

The presence of organized criminal violence – or any violence – results from the underlying conditions for peacefulness, known as the level of ‘positive peace.’ Positive peace captures the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies. Violence is an outcome of weak positive peace, so real reductions in organized crime will come from changing the underlying conditions in society, including the level of corruption.

No economic crime without economic success

IEP has developed a framework for assessing positive peace, based on the characteristics of the world’s most peaceful societies. The key insight for Mexico is that, while all around weakness in the eight core components of positive peace is one risk factor for violence, strength in some components combined with weakness in others can be just as dangerous. The most peaceful countries in the world have a balanced positive peace profile: they perform well in all eight domains.

As the world’s 15th largest economy, Mexico’s abundant resources, large and increasingly skilled workforce, and modernizing infrastructure have raised the standard of living for millions of people. But better roads, bigger farms and modern banks make it easier to run both legitimate businesses and illegitimate, violent ones. In 2017, 66% of Mexican businesses reported perceiving corruption in police and justice institutions – the very institutions that should protect Mexico’s business environment. Decades of corruption and weak rule of law have allowed the illegal economy to flourish, to the tune of 77.6 billion US dollars.

This dark side of Mexico’s economic success reflects a dangerous imbalance in society. Corruption erodes governance, and where governance is weak, the economic infrastructure needed for legitimate businesses can easily be co-opted by illegitimate ones. There is no economic crime without economic success, and some of the richest states in Mexico have the highest levels of violence.

An uphill battle

This cycle has been compounding for years, and violence appears to have spread; the severity and ubiquity of drug trade related violence may be allowing non-organized crime offenses to go unnoticed and unpunished. Impunity and corruption undermine trust, eroding social cohesion, perceptions of fairness, and democratic political culture. This fragility in turn allows for further escalations of violence. Widespread insecurity risks becoming instability. At the same time, no number of anti-corruption laws can solve the problem in a country without the rule of law.

Last time the homicide rate peaked, in 2011, there was much discussion of Mexico as a ‘failed state,’ but the concept of fragility takes a different form in this atypical war. However, criminal organizations have effective ways to operate under the current governance structures and thus a vested interest in what is better termed a ‘dysfunctional state’. Candidates who call for change face serious risks. At least 30 candidates in the 2018 mayoral, gubernatorial and legislative elections – particularly those running on strong anti-corruption platforms – have been assassinated by organized crime groups, and research shows homicide rates often spike when the party in power is challenged in a local election, making democracy a dangerous prospect. As a result, the distorting effects of corruption and violence have hollowed out the critical components of a well-functioning government: legitimacy, accountability, and service delivery, including the provision of the rule of law.

Rises in corruption are known to precede violence, and similarly, improvements in corruption are strongly associated with improvements in peace. A reduction in perceptions of corruption is one of the five most common characteristics of countries that have substantially reduced their levels of violence. Counterintuitively, the other factors associated with improvements in peace are not the inverse of what leads to outbreaks or escalations of violence. While it is frustration, grievance and misinformation that lead us into violence, institution building and tangible improvements in material well-being are the most common paths to peace.

Righting a dysfunctional state

Peace and security require a culture of transparency and citizen engagement in order to cultivate a shared sense of accountability and ultimately reduce corruption. In order to do that, governments have to re-earn the public’s trust. The percentage of Mexicans reporting a high level of trust in public security institutions in 2017 fell to 18%, its lowest level since 2012. In the same year, 68% of Mexicans reported perceiving their local police force as corrupt and 82% believed information put out by the government had been manipulated.

Citizens in Mexico will need to consider carefully whom they elect, looking for candidates with nuanced proposals who understand the complexity of reducing violence and corruption in such a difficult context. Newly elected governments will need to build trust by demonstrating results. This can be achieved through the strategic delivery of public services: those that are visible, needed, and quick but moderately sustainable. All the better if they reflect campaign promises, to demonstrate that elected officials will deliver on public statements.

At the same time, governments can begin to cultivate a culture of transparency with regular releases of information and engagement with public dialogue, including on social media. But sporadic transparency for the politics of the day just won’t do. Government reporting should be both consistent and responsive to the issues raised by citizens, to both validate and demonstrate progress on their concerns. Cultivating trust and citizen engagement creates an environment of honesty, as citizens – whether they are government employees or not – hold one another accountable.

The 2018 MPI found that states where people report that they trust their public officials and where they organize and cooperate in their communities do indeed have lower crime rates. While still low, the percentage of Mexicans that report cooperating to resolve community issues rose from 28% to 34% over the last four years.

Given the systemic nature of the problem, peace will have to come from the ground up, built person by person and household by household. Mexico will need to cultivate levels of integrity, transparency and effective governance on par with the success of its economy. Ending Mexico’s drug wars won’t look like a typical peace treaty or military victory, but it will be a question of positive peace.


About the Authors

Talia Hagerty is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Economics & Peace, where she leads the institute’s research in Latin America and contributes to global studies of peacefulness and citizen security. Talia has been working on peace in Mexico for nearly ten years, and is the lead author on IEP’s Mexico Peace Index. Her work combines data science and peacebuilding practice to develop new insights for peaceful, prosperous societies.

Carlos Juárez Cruz is the Institute for Economics & Peace’s Mexico Program Manager, building on his experience in multi-sector peacebuilding initiatives, corporate banking, financial analysis and managing relationships with CEO’s, mayors and high-level government officials. Carlos has been an advisor on economic development, public finance and transparency for several local governments in Mexico. In 2010, when his hometown of Acapulco was stricken by violence, Carlos began explicitly working for peace as he and his neighbours founded a local organization to keep their community safe.


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